The Spanish and Greek scholars thrust into national politics

Martin McQuillan on the critical theorists shaking up Syriza and Podemos

March 26, 2015

Source: Paul Bateman

One of the most remarkable things about events unfolding in Greece is how many members of the Syriza government are academics – cue national newspaper headlines in January about “How British universities helped mould Syriza’s political elite”.

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – who describes himself on Twitter as an “economics professor, quietly writing obscure academic texts for years, until thrust on to the public scene” – has a PhD from the University of Essex and has taught at the universities of East Anglia, Cambridge and Glasgow. MP Costas Lapavitsas is professor of economics at Soas, University of London, while Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis taught political theory and philosophy at King’s College London.

There is, of course, a long history of professors entering government as technocrats or leaders. Mohamed Morsi, for example, went from head of a science department at Zagazig University to become the Muslim Brotherhood’s first president of Egypt, while Barack Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School. What is significant about Syriza is that it draws a key membership from university departments that have histories of engagement with critical theory and heterodox political economy. It will be interesting to read Essex’s impact case studies for the 2020 research excellence framework.

There is a similar situation in Spain. Podemos is often compared to Syriza, as an anti-austerity party that is eclipsing an existing social democratic party. With regional and national elections scheduled for the winter of this year, the party is currently polling at 25 per cent of the vote. Podemos draws heavily from the academic scene in Madrid. Party leader Pablo Iglesias was acting head of political science at the Complutense University of Madrid and is an expert on psychoanalysis and cinema. Deputy leader Íñigo Errejón is a postdoc in the same department. Unlike the Greek academics forming Syriza, who were trained or employed in UK and US universities, Iglesias and Errejón are “precarious lecturers” – staff who have never had full-time tenured posts and survive on fixed-term and hourly paid work.

The Spanish academy has a genuine problem in this respect. A generation of “funcionarios” in their fifties occupy most of the permanent positions in Spain’s universities. As tenured “civil servants” in a heavily controlled and subsidised system, their employment is guaranteed regardless of personal performance or student recruitment. On a recent visit to a Catalan university, I discovered a school of the humanities that had 50 undergraduate students and 50 funcionario staff.

Spanish students are required to pay €2,000 (£1,400) in annual up-front tuition fees, and the financial crisis has resulted in a serious squeeze on students in certain subjects, especially in regional universities. Despite years of harsh austerity, neither the government in Madrid nor the regional authorities, which co-fund Spanish universities, have taken any steps to address the issue of the funcionario. There has been a go-slow on granting similar employment rights to a new generation of academics, and it is hoped that natural retirements will “see out” the last of the tenured. There is a generational conflict in Spanish universities as precarious lecturers, some now in their forties, watch senior colleagues enjoy the benefits of extended gardening leave during a period of national financial hardship. Youth unemployment in Spain is currently running at 55 per cent.

It is not surprising that the leaders of Podemos should emerge from a generation of academics who are locked out of a system that was designed by the Franco regime to ensure stability through middle-class loyalty to the state. The precarious academics behind Podemos have nothing to lose. Like their equivalents in Greece, they are strongly committed to reform of public institutions that would root out nepotism and irrational gerontocracy. The question of university reform is central to the platforms of both parties.

In Greece, Syriza has already reinstated the (mostly mature and part-time) students who had been removed from higher education through a recent change in the law. It is also committed to dealing with endemic problems of privilege and sclerosis within the Greek academy. The interests of Syriza lie in returning economic growth to a functioning post-crisis society. It recognises that this will require social mobility, intergenerational justice and wider participation in higher education.

Rather than the usual graduates of the Harvard Business School and in PPE at Oxford, the academics leading Syriza and Podemos are experts on Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The Greek minister of education, Aristides Baltas, is author of a book on Spinoza and Wittgenstein. It is unusual for academics in the critical humanities and theoretical social sciences to find themselves occupying political office (although Slavoj Žižek did run unsuccessfully for the presidency of Slovenia in 1990).

Michel Foucault declined François Mitterrand’s offer of the post of cultural attaché in New York, and Derrida was close to the election campaigns of both Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin. That generation of thinkers did not cross the line between the critical academy and the exercise of government.

Inspired by the work of academics such as the late Ernesto Laclau, professor of political theory at Essex, and Étienne Balibar, anniversary chair of philosophy at Kingston University, a new generation of critical thinkers is choosing to cross that frontier in response to regimes of austerity. They do so not out of an understanding that social science research is of value when it can be utilised by the state in an “impactful” way. Instead, they act out of a necessity that is fundamental to their own academic work, risking theoretical positions against the problems of the world. In doing so, they are likely to experience the same frustrations and compromises of government as their predecessors. How they respond to this – in more or less intelligent ways – will be the measure of how true these professors-turned-politicians remain to their academic ideals.

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